Product counterfeiting is a $600 billion illicit industry, and at $200 billion, counterfeit pharmaceuticals represent the biggest chunk. Packaging-based countermeasures exist, but the global traffic in faked, adulterated, and diverted products goes on and on.

Since 2011, a Hawaii-based company called TruTag Technologies has been trying to make the product inside the package the main line of defense against fraud. Its solution is an invisible microtag that acts as an electronic authenticator on anything it is applied to—including pills and capsules that can be safely swallowed with the tag in place.

The key ingredient is 100% pure amorphous silicon dioxide, a.k.a. silica, a drug, cosmetic, and food additive described by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “generally recognized as safe.” TruTag has found a way to encode dust-sized silica particles with unique optical signatures that are analogous to fingerprints in humans. These “covert, edible bar codes” are applied to individual tablets during the coating process with what the company says is minimal change to standard manufacturing procedures.

The tags are heat-resistant and, unlike RFID chips, require no electrical connectivity. The company says that because the tags are coded with information throughout their depths rather than along their surfaces, they are still readable when broken into pieces—each piece contains all of the encoded information.

Once applied, the tags can be scanned at any point in the supply chain using spectrometer-based devices provided by TruTag. Scans of products that can’t be authenticated, or of those found to be improperly diverted, generate an alert that includes contact information for investigative follow-up.

The tags also can encode lot number, expiration date, date of manufacture, authorized customer, or country of authorized sale for track-and-trace purposes. Pharmaceutical products are the primary application, but the tags also can be added to food items, injection molded plastics, computer chips, and aviation and automobile parts.

TruTag says that its microcoding technology makes authentication an integral part of the product, completely independent of the package or the label. At first glance, the tags would appear to sidestep the function of packages and labels in counterfeiting deterrence.

But, says the company, the tags also can be applied to packaging and labels during conversion. A “layered” security scheme for brand protection might consist of a coded label or RFID chip on the package and a uniquely coded TruTag microtag on the product, combining to form a digital signature. A security violation would result if anyone attempted to separate the package and its contents.

TruTag Technologies is a World Economic Forum 2014 Technology Pioneer, an honor awarded to innovative start-up companies. The company also was a 2014 Edison Award winner and was selected to receive a 2014 R&D 100 award by R&D Magazine.